By Jamie Candee
When I was in elementary school, I struggled. I couldn’t read and most subjects felt impossible to learn. But then my second-grade teacher took an interest in my education.
She worked with me week after week to help me identify strategies I could use to learn the skills I needed. By the end of that school year, I was excited to learn, and I started earning better grades. That one teacher changed the course of my future and ignited my desire to work in education.
As I think about my childhood, I reflect on the ways in which some adults may implicitly tell kids they can’t do something. It’s especially true when it comes to math. It’s common to overhear a co-worker or friend saying “Oh, I’m just not good at math” or “Ugh! I hate math.” Our typical response is to nod our heads in agreement. Those moments may seem innocuous, but they reinforce the idea that math is a subject reserved for a select few — the “math people.” But just like learning the alphabet, state capitals, or how to type, math skills are teachable. Educators have the opportunity to dismantle the myth of the math person and foster inclusive learning environments where all students can reach their math potential.
Math is an integral aspect of life. Promoting the development of strong math skills doesn’t necessarily mean pushing students toward math-based careers. However, research has shown math competency opens up new college and career opportunities, increases one’s potential for future income, and positively impacts social and economic outcomes in the long run. Moreover, beyond college and career, math permeates daily life. Whether it’s calculating ingredient proportions when cooking, estimating travel time, or even assembling a piece of furniture, everyone needs fundamental math skills.
Math also plays a role in helping students develop future-proof skills, such as data literacy. The world is full of data, and it’s estimated that approximately 328 million terabytes of data are created every day. Students need to know how to compare, analyze, and integrate data to be able to derive meaningful information from these figures — and those skills are developed in math class.
The process of developing math skills has far-reaching implications. Solving math problems can help students build critical thinking and problem-solving skills because they have to consider problems from different angles and piece together various bits of information. Even productive struggle — the process of actively working through a new challenge — in math has its benefits. Engaging in productive struggle can teach students perseverance, a highly valued skill that will serve them in various aspects of their personal and professional lives.
To dispel the myth of the math persona and instead build a culture of math in classrooms, educators can make a few key shifts.
Emphasize why, not what
It’s easy in math instruction to focus on the what — numbers, formulas, equations, and patterns — as central topics in content. But when teachers can shift to talking about the why, they can better reach students with different learning styles.
To do this, teachers need rigorous and engaging curriculum. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics encourages rigor because it increases “a positive mathematical identity and agency and includes the development of problem-solving skills, conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and essential mathematical processes and practices.”
Rigor also helps students engage deeply with math. It goes beyond memorization and instead focuses on relationships and concepts. When teachers approach math in this way, it enables students to understand the why of math, so they can apply it to different situations. Not only does that help students master grade-level concepts, but it also sets a foundation for students to engage in more complex math concepts later in their educational journey.
Invest in diverse teaching practices to personalize learning
Students need different paths to find success and to be engaged. Math educators can do this by diversifying teaching practices and giving students more choice — and that doesn’t have to mean an activity free-for-all. Instead, teachers can offer students a variety of creative activities within a unit, such as math stations (that use blocks or other manipulatives), drawing math stories, and having students create podcasts about math concepts.
Digital curriculum also offers a valuable avenue for promoting choice. Teachers can assign digital lessons to let students learn on their own, while teachers work individually with students who need more support. This technology lets students engage in learning whether they are in person, hybrid, or remote. The consistent access to lesson content helps maintain a cohesive learning experience for all students. For example, a recent ESSA tier 2 study conducted with a large, urban school district in Arizona found that students in grades 4-8 who used Exact Path personalized learning pathways throughout the school year saw a sizable, positive statistically significant increase in performance on the Arizona Academic Standards Assessment (AASA) across all grades in math. Results indicated that the average student accelerated their learning by 6 to 19 percentage points on the state assessment from one spring to the next.
Rigor also helps students engage deeply with math. It goes beyond memorization and instead focuses on relationships and concepts.
Rethink praise and recognition
In math, educators often focus praise on speed and accuracy. For example, how quickly a student learns a concept, finishes a set of problems, or how many answers are correct. But if educators shift their focus to recognizing students for their perseverance or finding different ways to solve a problem, students can learn to value the process rather than the answer. Doing so could help students feel more motivated and encourage intellectual risk-taking.
One way educators can do this is by normalizing making mistakes. Portions of class can be dedicated to time called “Happy Mistakes,” in which the whole class discusses their incorrect answers. By guiding the conversation around how the mistake happened and encouraging students to talk about what else could have been done, educators can switch the focus away from the idea of always being right and towards engaging in math concepts.
Other ideas include coming up with awards that stray away from traditional recognition. Awards such as “Skilled Problem Solver” or “Most Creative Math Solution” can create a culture in which students understand there are more dimensions to math than being fast or correct.
Adopt adaptive, individualized assessments
In addition to creating many paths to mastering math, educators need to build personalized assessments of students’ skills. Students may enter a grade and not be at the same level as their peers — and this is especially true in the current post-pandemic environment where students and teachers are navigating steep recovery rates and low test scores.
At the same time, teachers are being asked to work with students in many ways: one-on-one, in small groups, as well as whole class instruction. Assessments must adapt to each of these scenarios. Especially for students who need a deeper level of support, high-impact tutoring, which is one-on-one or small group, relationship-based and aligned to classroom instruction, has been shown to have a positive impact on learning outcomes. In these types of sessions, tutors guide students through lessons aligned to their needs based on diagnostic assessments or district data. Third-party tier 2 ESSA evidence confirms that students who use Exact Path, for example, improve assessment scores and demonstrate positive, statistically significant growth.
With the right support, students can reach grade-level competencies again. Cumberland Valley School District in Mechanicsburg, Penn. uses Exact Path, Edmentum’s individualized learning and intervention program to assess students’ math skills. The data available to teachers allows them to pinpoint gaps and develop specific plans for students. Being able to assess students individually, and take action based on the data, has helped accelerate progress in the district and boost student motivation in math.
Math skills are too important to let students believe having them is innate. By embracing these practices educators can cultivate classrooms where every student feels capable of excelling and sees themselves as a “math person.”
About the author
Jamie Candee is CEO of Edmentum, a digital curriculum provider, and has extensive experience in educational technology, private equity, and policy.